"There were many naysayers and many people who did not really think the young people would respond to John Paul II and his message," said Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who in his then-role as director of liturgy for the Denver Archdiocese helped plan the liturgies.
"It was predicted that the papal initiative would attract no more than 20,000 young people," Cardinal Stafford said.
With hopeful optimism, organizers started planning for 60,000 people to attend the Aug. 11-15, 1993, WYD program of catechesis, liturgies and cultural events that included a closing Mass at Cherry Creek State Park celebrated by fellow pilgrim, Pope John Paul II. Denver's WYD program diverged from previous ones in that the pope was to participate in twice as many liturgies and for more days.
"As the registrations started coming in, it went to 150,000," said Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, who served as national director for Denver's WYD. "The final registration was 500,000. We know there were walk-ons, particularly for the final Mass. It was 750,000 people there."
Denver's program was so successful that it has remained the norm for subsequent World Youth Days, Archbishop Schnurr said.
"World Youth Day Denver also completely transformed how the Church goes about youth ministry in the U.S.," he said. "Previously, youth ministry was like Catholic Youth Organization, a lot of sports activities segregated from religious education. (We) brought those activities and religious education back together."
Making it happen
The event planning proved challenging, organizers said.
Cherry Creek State Park included wetland preserves that needed protected and prairie dogs that needed moved. Electricity, water, roads and toilets needed to be constructed.
"At the time I said it was as though we were building a minor city in the middle of nowhere," Archbishop Schnurr said with a laugh.
Because the pope is a head of state, Secret Service was involved in the planning.
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"We had to provide Secret Service with an outline of every event and who the people were who would be approaching the Holy Father, all in three-minute increments," said Archbishop Aquila.
People on pilgrimage tend to not eat, drink or sleep well enough, noted Msgr. Buelt: "The biggest challenge, was attending to the health and well-being of the participants."
Scorching temperatures for the three-hour closing Mass at Cherry Creek State Park on Aug. 15, 1993, compounded the situation.
"I remember that after people received holy Communion, we handed them bottles of water," Sister Walsh said.
Despite the exhaustion and dehydration experienced by some pilgrims among the sea of humanity gathered at Cherry Creek State Park, estimated to be the largest public gathering in Colorado's history, the closing Mass was a joyous, peaceful finale to the five-day pilgrimage.
"There was a sense of, 'We did it!'" Sister Walsh said. "We were doing a lot from scratch. We'd never seen anything like it before."